Posted by: Jack Henry | February 8, 2022

Editor’s Corner: Contronyms

Good morning to you!

Recently, one of the language blogs I read provided a short list of words that have opposite or contrary definitions. These words are called contronyms, antagonyms, or Janus words (after the Roman god who is usually depicted as having two faces). The article got me thinking about how many of these words there are and about how confusing that must be to English language learners!

If you grew up speaking English, you may not have even noticed that these words can have two totally opposite meanings. Since I’m feeling a little contrary today, I’ll share some of the more common contronyms with you. This is not a complete list.

Word First meaning Alternate meaning
Buckle To fasten or secure

Ex: Be sure to buckle your seatbelt.

To bend or warp

Ex: After hours of hiking, my legs started to buckle.

Cleave To join or adhere closely

Ex: This dressmaker chose material that cleaves to the skin.

To split or divide

Ex: You can use the axe to cleave the tree.

Dust To remove dust/dirt from

Ex: Don’t forget to dust the furniture.

To sprinkle something on

Ex: Dust the strawberries with sugar.

Enjoin To instruct, prescribe, or command

Ex: My sister enjoined me not to tell anyone her secret.

To prohibit or forbid

Ex: The judge enjoined them from selling the property.

Execute To start or begin a process

Ex: When you are ready, you can execute your plan.

[dbb – As part of our commitment to inclusive, bias-free language, JH avoids using
execute when talking about running a program.]

To kill or bring to an end

Ex: They performed ritual executions as offerings to their gods.

Left Departed

Ex: The singer left the stage.

What remains

Ex: There are only six donuts left.

Overlook To monitor or inspect

Ex: From her balcony, she could overlook her neighbor’s backyard.

To fail to notice or choose not to emphasize

Ex: He chose to overlook his toddler’s tantrum.

Out Visible

Ex: The moon is out.

Invisible or extinguished

Ex: He put the candle out.

Peruse To skim or read without attention to detail

Ex: You can peruse the magazine while you wait for the doctor.

To read or example in detail

Ex: She leaned forward to peruse the document more closely.

Presently In a short while; soon

Ex: The president will arrive presently.

At the present time; now

Ex: Presently, we have 250 participants.

Rent To sell or lease the use of a commodity

Ex: He will rent his extra room to Dan.

To buy the use of a commodity

Ex: Dan will rent a room from Sean.

Sanction To permit or grant approval

Ex: Their policy was sanctioned by management.

To condemn or penalize

Ex: The government has sanctioned the use of force.

Screen To protect or conceal

Ex: If you have small children, you should screen them from violence on the TV.

To show or broadcast

Ex: They will screen the final episode on Sunday at 8:00 p.m.

Transparent Obvious

Ex: His behavior was very transparent—he was trying to get her in trouble.


Ex: The onion was sliced so thin that it was almost transparent.

Enjoy the rest of your day!

Donna Bradley Burcher |Technical Editor, Advisory | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

Pronouns she/her/hers

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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